Sustaining Curiosity: Sarah Sparer on Working Your Skills and Being Open-Minded
By Julia Gamolina, cover image courtesy of SOM
As Associate General Counsel for SOM, Sarah provides legal, commercial, and risk management advice to senior leaders on all areas of managing an international professional design services firm. Sarah’s work includes negotiation of design services and commercial agreements, counseling on international incorporation, intellectual property, licensing, risk management, compliance, data privacy and training staff on risk avoidance. Prior to joining SOM, Sarah worked as an Associate at the boutique construction law frm, Quinn, McCabe LLP where she represented real estate development and construction industry clients, including developers, design professionals, contractors, suppliers and property owners in both litigation and transactional matters.
Sarah is a graduate of Brooklyn Law School (2012) and the University of Michigan (2008), a member of the New York City Bar Association Construction Law Committee and also serves as a Chair of the Design and Construction Committee for UJA. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Sarah speaks about her path into architecture, advising those just starting their careers to be open minded and to show the world who they really are.
Tell me first about how you ended up becoming a lawyer in this field.
I was actually choosing between becoming an architect and going to law school! The question for me when choosing my career was do I apply the skills that I excel at, pursue my passions or try to combine the two? Though I always excelled at writing, public speaking and advocating, I have always had a passion for the arts. I dabble in painting and photography. My grandmother was a docent in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and a huge art fanatic, so the focus on the arts started very early for me as I spent a lot of time in art museums and art classes growing up. I studied art history as an undergraduate with a focus on architecture, which I have always I found fascinating. After some soul searching I acknowledged that I am my best as an advocate for others so I chose the legal route and went to law school with an aim to represent artists or other creatives.
What did you learn in law school?
I learned how to problem solve first and foremost. You learn a set of rules and parameters, you are given a set of facts and then you learn how to get from A to B with those particular facts and parameters. That type of skill set has helped me as in house counsel when trying to help my colleagues do the work they want to do while working within the confines of the legal rules and risks they take on while doing that work. I also learned advocacy - persistence, speaking in public, research and writing. I spent a lot of time in law school honing courtroom skills and spent the first part of my legal career in the courtroom. It was a great confidence builder.
What did you end up focusing on out of law school?
I graduated law school in 2012, which was a difficult time to enter the workforce, especially in law. There were very few jobs available and I had difficulty finding the opportunity to represent the artists and creatives that I had set out to represent. The jobs were few and far to come by and the competition in New York City was stifling. I knew I enjoyed courtroom advocacy, though, so I decided to start there by working in medical malpractice law firm defending doctors against malpractice claims. I gave myself a two-year timeframe to try out this area of the law, get some courtroom experience and told myself I would keep trying to get closer to advocating for artists if I didn’t like it. It ended up being a great first step because I learned how to represent licensed professionals and that ended up helping me learn how to represent architects in my next job.
What did you do next?
When my two-year deadline was approaching, I knew that medical malpractice was not for me because I wasn’t involved in a subject matter I felt passionate about. So I revisited my roots and asked myself: how do I pivot toward something I care more about now? I went for an interview at a start-up construction law firm run by two fantastic attorneys. They represented developers, contractors and architects and they needed courtroom lawyers who knew how to represent licensed professionals who had been accused of professional malpractice. When these two lawyers who would become my bosses told me, “if you work here, you’ll be going to construction sites and seeing what is being built in New York City right now,” I had a gut feeling that I needed to do this. It was a small firm that I had never heard of, and they were just starting to grow so I knew it was a risk but I just knew it was going to take me closer to where I wanted to be. They were just as excited about architecture and buildings as I was - I knew that was something special that I couldn’t pass up.
How was your time there?
It was very exciting! I was going out to construction sites and roof tops all over the City to really understand my client’s legal issues. I was learning how to read architectural and engineering plans so that I could advocate for them. That idea that you really needed to learn about the profession that you were representing was a fantastic lesson that I took from this firm. I knew what the skyline was going to look like in the future and I loved that. I also felt particularly proud being a female attorney in a very male dominated industry. There were many times that a man would use profanity and apologize to me and not the other men at the construction site. There were times when I was asked if I really wanted to stomp around an abated demolition site or climb the escape hatch to a roof or just wait out front. I found it thrilling to show these guys that I could get my boots dirty with the rest of them! My bosses and colleagues at work were really supportive of me and encouraged me regardless.
How did you get your job at SOM?
I worked at that law firm for about three years and decided I wanted to broaden my horizons from courtroom advocacy to more transactional work, in other words negotiating contracts and deals. I felt the urge to move away from the claims and dispute side of a project when things between an architect and client had broken down beyond repair. That’s the work of a courtroom lawyer. I wanted to have a more positive experience with the law by helping deals get done, so I started to network a lot and set out in search of in house counsel opportunities where there is more deal making.
Eventually I got recruited to SOM. When the opportunity to interview knocked, I knew this was the opportunity for me to get to where I had set out to be - working for creatives and architects. I really wanted the job. I studied for a week before my interviews with the SOM Partners and General Counsel. I was prepared and that gave me confidence. Though I could never say I got every answer I got asked “right”, my passion and willingness to learn came through.
What do you do for SOM?
I have a lot of different roles and am always learning new things about architecture, engineering, and running a business which is what I love about this job. I am never bored. One aspect of the job is risk management - for example, when you get a potential project that the partnership is considering taking on and is really excited about, I help in analyzing the risk and rewards that may come along with that project. The firm is always innovating and pushing the envelope, so I help them take calculated and very well-thought out risks. The legal group looks at what scopes of work get the most claims in the industry and we make sure that we train everyone on the riskier scopes of work to look out for.
I also negotiate contracts. A lot of issues comes up with that including working with the technical and project management teams to figure out what the scope of our services includes, how we want to get paid, and structuring the legal aspects of the deal to minimize risk. I also work on helping the partnership with corporate law, like how their partnership is legally established and how they can do work legally in foreign countries.
For an architect who just launched their own firm and knows little about the legal aspects of the business besides what they may have read about in their licensing exams - what would be the first thing you’d tell them?
Educate yourself and your employees by implementing a basic legal training program. On a regular basis, whether yearly or more, have an in-house lawyer or an outside law firm come in and do trainings. Topics can include risk management during various stages of a project, awareness of risky scopes of services and understanding your legal obligations to your clients - your professional duty of care. Educate yourself, train your staff and put the things they should be looking out for on their radar.
What are some examples of the things we should be looking out for?
Understand how your professional liability insurance policy acts to cover you for performing your professional services in line with your professional duty of care. There is a very specific formula governing what your professional liability insurance policy will cover and understanding that is essential. Often insurance companies or your insurance broker will be very versed in explaining this and may even do trainings so you may already have a resource available to help you understand this better.
Where are you in your career today?
I’ve been practicing law for seven years and specialized in representing architects for five years. Just like architects, it is a very long road to become an expert in construction law but I feel that I am taking very great strides with the opportunity to work at SOM. I am getting the diverse experience of risk management, deal making and corporate governance that are making me a well rounded lawyer who works in the design and construction industry and I am please with that. Of course, I have a lot to learn yet. Representing people whose work is incredibly technical and complex means that not only do I need to get the legal aspects right, but I am constantly learning about architecture, engineering and construction. I plan to continue to absorb how the complex projects that SOM works on are done. And how a large international business is run and that definitely isn’t going to happen overnight. I am very lucky to have some incredible mentors in the legal department at SOM and I feel confident they will impart of lot of knowledge.
What have been your biggest challenges in your career in this industry?
A very important aspect of practicing construction law is learning the terms of the art. I don’t have an architecture degree, but I need to understand the practice of architecture to do my job well. If you want to be a lawyer in the industry, you better have an interest, because there is a lot to learn. I am always persistent in asking questions and seeking input from my colleagues to better understand the industry. There is a curiosity that I need to sustain every day to do my job properly.
I have also had challenges with work-life balance which I see across both the legal and architecture professionals. It has always been a challenge, especially as a courtroom lawyer. Before moving to an in house counsel position, I definitely sacrificed holidays, time for friends and family, weekends, you name it. Moving in house has helped but the more time I spend digging in to the various things I want to accomplish, I find myself slipping back into picking up the computer on the weekends. I think striking that balance is just a skill you have to learn being a professional in New York and I am still working on it.
What have been some of the highlights?
Sitting down with people at SOM is incredibly exciting and humbling. They are brilliant and incredibly hard working and have designed and helped to implement some of the buildings that I really love all over the world. I love New York City and my own colleagues have put their stamp on it. Getting to work with people that I have such respect for, and who have made such an incredible contribution to this city, is amazing.
What has been your general approach to your career?
I’m a big proponent of participating, networking and putting yourself out there. I always feel like things get done when you get out there and meet people. What you choose to do to connect with other people doesn’t have to be related to your career - just be open, participate and things will come. I really feel like people detect that open-minded energy, and know that you’re not there to get something from them, but that you’re just interested in connecting.
Another approach I have always taken is sharing my personality and interests with my colleagues and superiors and letting them know that I’m not another cog in the wheel. I express my interests, share my weekend plans, let them know that I have a sister and a brother and a husband. I intentionally try to humanize myself to the people I work with. I feel strongly that opening up really helps build relationships and differentiates one person from another in an otherwise corporate and impersonal environment. I feel that has made a big impact in my advancing in my career. If I work with you, I want to get to know you and hope you get to know me!
What advice do you have for architects in general?
From a personal side, let people get to know you for who you are. From a legal side, get some sort of training on all things outside of design and construction - what does your insurance policy cover, what is your liability - get educated. Get comfortable with all the parameters of this industry.
Finally, what advice do you have for those who are just starting their careers?
First, if you’re thinking of spending money on professional school, whether that be architecture, law, medicine, etc - know what you’re getting into. If you get into architecture school or law school, interview grads from that school on where their colleagues from school work, are they financially successful (if that’s a concern), and how quickly they can pay back those loans. What is their work life balance like? How is the job market in their industry? Given the cost of a graduate or professional degree, you really need to understand what you are signing up for.
Also, be open-minded and creative when taking various job opportunities. In my case, I got diverted from what I wanted to do originally - working in the arts or someway in connection to them was not really materializing. I wasn’t rigid in following that original plan, I kept an open mind, and I tried other things out in the meantime. To pivot back, I focused on my transferable skills - I worked for doctors and found a way to apply that to working for architects. It was luck that I met those two partners that hired me to first work in a construction law firm but it was an open mind and creativity that allowed me to recognized that I had developed those transferable skills and to recognize to a path existed to getting back to something I liked. Work your skills, be creative, be persuasive, and figure out how to get to the next step that you want.